Think 1990s YBA and what artworks come to mind? A pickled shark, a bawdy story tent, a head made of frozen blood… and a photo of Sarah Lucas looking defiant with a limp cigarette in her mouth. Or better yet, her bent, worn mattress with anthropomorphically inserted fruit and veg with metal bucket. Mostly, her pieces distill the human body down to a sexualised and/or consumed object. The key to Lucas’ work is that it’s beautifully uncomplicated in concept and execution. Nothing is superfluous. Regardless of whether you like the work or not, it’s impossible to not get it. That simplicity is what makes each work powerfully memorable as an image.
SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble at Whitechapel Gallery is a fully considered three-room installation that weaves the entire oeuvre onto itself to create a full-on, brilliantly funny, and in-your-face kind of endeavour. Photos and collages are blown up and made into Warholian wallpaper onto which other works are hung. Sculptures are combined, or positioned in near-overlapping proximity, or supported by stuff that might or might not be new sculpture. The interesting restraint to this new amalgamation is that individual works retain their identity courtesy of the museum wall tag. One example of this layering effect in the first gallery is the back wall, which is covered with an enlarged and repeating pattern from Soup (1989). Originally a photo collage measuring at 152.5 x 122 cm. (60 x 48 in.), it’s an image of an unidentifiable creamed soup adorned with about three dozen penis glans. Size matters in this show, and so the image is scaled up so that the glans are around the size of a human head. Framed and hung right of center over Soup is the iconic Eating a Banana (1990). Just off to the right, the sculpture Mechanical Wanker (1999) rests on a slick-looking table made of breeze (cinder) block and MDF. And this is just the back wall of the first gallery.
The ground floor—a tour de force recontextualising the older work—has an ’80s SoHo artist’s loft feel, with the artwork positioned around, resting against and sitting on top of slick-looking breeze-block and MDF-fashioned structures. These space dividers, benches, and tables are found throughout the entire show and are what surreptitiously ties it together. A wall tag in the third gallery explains that all of this is actually a body of new work called Modular Furniture (2013). The new work nods to the anthropomorphic concerns of the older work and hints at Vito Acconci’s late ’70s shift from performance to furniture installations. On their own, they feel a bit bare and too finished, too far away from the everyday found objects that Lucas is known for. Are they purely codependent objects only to be completed by other work and/or people? Then again, this is the new, layered world of Sarah Lucas, where no object can be considered in isolation.
The second gallery is the smallest and is an installation around Au Naturel (1994). Surrounded ceiling to floor by naked torsos (of Gary Hume) mostly taken from the series Got a Salmon On (Prawn) (1994) and Get Off Your Horse and Drink Your Milk (1994), Au Naturel commands as the centerpiece. Normally seen propped against a wall, it’s supported by one of four (unidentified) brick-shaped plinths, each made from a fully crushed automobile.
The third gallery is the most airy and well behaved in its layout, focusing on later, post-London works. Included are the entertaining cigarette-fabricated portraits from her exhibition in 2000, The Fag Show, through to her most recent polymorphic bronzes. These highly polished pieces rest on stacked gray breeze blocks straight from the installation at the Venice Biennale. But the gems in this room are the incredibly funny pair of Priapus (2013) and Eros (2013). They are made from “Cimente Fondue” and are giant phalluses, each propped on a crushed automobile block. Although the addition of the car plinth for this show is not listed in the wall tag as a material, these additions make the pieces. This supplementary layer not only reinforces Lucas’ omnipresent themes of the hyper-sexualised and the hyper-consumed, but makes the work blatantly funny. What’s better than a giant papier mâché-esque cock? One that’s doing a belly flop on a crushed car!
Seeing a 24-year span of Sarah Lucas’ work offers the viewer more than just a chance to reevaluate individual pieces outside of the fatigued external narrative. What is apparent is what has been sorely missing all these years—the opportunity to view the works in relation to each other through the previously unseen links between them.
Sarah Lucas: SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble is on view at Whitechapel Gallery through December 15, 2013.